Medical Auxiliaries from the Physician’s Viewpoint in Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Medical Texts

Medical auxiliaries from the physician’s viewpoint in Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance medical texts: codifying professional skills or establishing a hierarchy?

By Dina Bacalexi and Mehrnaz Katouzian-Safadi

Scientiae 2017: Disciplines of knowing in the Early Modern World, Apr 2017, Padoue, Italy

Detail of a historiated initial ‘C'(um) with a birth scene with a midwife presenting the newborn to the mother. British Library MS Arundel 66 f. 148

Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance medical treatises written by physicians contain information pertaining to various categories of people involved in healthcare. In the case of specific patients, women and children, female assistance by midwives and nurses is indispensable; female auxiliaries often replace the physician in crucial moments such as birth or swaddling. When specific technical skills or professional activities regarding medicinal substances are concerned, druggists step on stage.

Female “paramedics” are not academics or learned persons like physicians. Physicians or surgeons (the latter in treatises which include references to specific obstetric experience) provide comprehensive descriptions of their assistants’ mission and practice in their treatises.

The situation for druggists is more complex: they could be learned botanists or simple merchants; whatever their learning and training may be, their social position differs from the physician’s.

Galen, Hippocrates and Soranos of Ephesus refer to female “paramedics”. Razes, as well as Avicenna, two physicians, and Ibn al-Quff, a surgeon, underline the instrumental role of nurses in child nutrition and development and provide detailed descriptions of the ideal nurse. The Renaissance commentators of Galen (François Valleriole, Leonhart Fuchs) insist on the competence and morality of midwives and nurses. The French Renaissance physicians and surgeons Simon de Vallambert, Jacques and Charles Guillemeau refer to Galen (but not to Soranos) as well as to the Oriental Medieval physicians, Avicenna and Razes, in order to emphasize good practices and prevent errors of female “paramedics”.

Our aim is to focus on midwives and nurses in order to examine a “gendered” medical practice by persons who did not study it in an academic context: how and by whom are they to be “educated”?How do physicians establish the hierarchical limits between them and their assistants? What is the status of “paramedical” knowledge: amateur or professional, although not officially included in the academic medical curricula?

Click here to read this article at HAL.

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine